Like fossils of dinosaur tracks in ancient riverbeds the first Gilded Age and Victorian era left lingering imprints. White opulence, once hidden at English manors, Rockefeller’s Kykuit or Hearst’s “Xanadu,” became overt consumption of goods, in higher quantity or greater expense than practical, to display social status. Thorstein Veblen described such behavior as “conspicuous consumption” in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Expensive goods not only provided “serviceability,” but “honorific” value as well, the kind of outward display of wealth formerly reserved for aristocrats, nobility and religious leaders, virtually all white. Once corporatism, capitalism and oligarchy morphed into parasitism, anyone with a down payment could go into debt exhibiting the trappings of privilege. Luxury vehicles or other expensive purchases could both perform functions and symbolize standing, however misleading. Such overindulgence not only involves waste (because excess uses more resources than non-luxury items), but perpetual expansion of consumers’ desires versus their needs, a gulf advertising still bridges. While the poor are again seeing themselves as “exploited proletariats instead of temporarily embarrassed millionaires (Steinbeck)” a disturbing corollary has emerged, “conspicuous victimhood.”
Middle-aged white women, “Karens” in Internet lingo, are exploiting real and imagined helplessness by calling police, making false accusations and twisting entitlement into bigoted acts of aggression. In June, a woman was recorded making racist tirades against Asian Americans in a California park. Another took a hammer to her Latino neighbors’ car. Another coughed deliberately on people in a New York City café when they complained she wasn’t wearing a mask. One day removed from George Floyd’s murder, a “Central Park Karen” called police on her cell phone, claiming that an “African American man” was “threatening” her. In reality, her alleged aggressor was a Black man who politely asked her to leash her dog in areas of the park, where mandated.
The social psychology behind these incidents can be sourced to longstanding memes of white female fragility and privilege. We all know the false narratives constructed during America’s centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, how enslaved Blacks were depicted as sexual threats to white women, whose virtues were protected by cultural oppression, anti-miscegenation laws and legalized lynching. Lillian Gish’ character in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was one such damsel-in-distress. Although Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird helped expose that trope as fallacy, chaste women in jeopardy awaiting rescue have been stock characters in world literature, art, cinema, and lately video games for millennia. Even Catholic Church hagiography has persecuted maidens. Consider St. George, Tennyson’s lyrical ballad “The Lady of Shallot,” the Coasters “Along Came Jones,” Sita in the Indian epic Ramayana, Rembrandt’s “Andromeda,” and Gretchen in Goethe’s “Faust.” Even strong, assertive women, who played active roles in vanquishing villains, were routinely damsels-in-distress: cliffhanger serial queens Linda Stirling and Kay Aldridge, Dale Evans, Phyllis Coates’ Lois Lane, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg’s incomparable Emma Peel.
Ordeals of fictionalized heroines are so ingrained in culture they’re easily weaponized. Let’s holster the cell phones and focus on real victims, the countless laid low by diseases, cruelty, climate change, famine and war. White privilege is no Rapunzel.
Scott Deshefy is two-time Green Party congressional candidate and a columnist for the Norwich Bulletin